November Research Spotlight on Ibrahim Cisse, Ph.D.

Ibrahim CisseTell us about your current career position.
I am currently at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus where I am part of the Transcription Imaging Consortium. We aim to develop new quantitative imaging techniques to probe transcription directly in living eukaryotic cells and with single-molecule sensitivity.

In January 2014, I will join the faculty of the Physics department at MIT. My laboratory at MIT will develop and use single molecule in vivo and in vitro techniques to capture weak and transient biomolecular interactions. We’ll also study collective behaviors that emerge during the regulation of biological processes in living cells.

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
Growing up in the French speaking system in Niger, I wanted to learn English and go to an American college. So I was fortunate to be able to move to the US right after high-school. I had no family or acquaintances in the US at the time so my host family, my new friends, teachers, and colleagues all played a big part in my trajectory.

How did you first become interested in science?
I was very curious early on. My parents nurtured and allowed me to develop that curiosity. As a kid, I converted a small storage room at home in Niger into my personal laboratory. It was fun! I put up a sign reading “Laboratoire” (laboratory)  on the door so that everyone knew that it was my exploration domain; it meant that I was allowed to break things in there, take them apart, and put them back together. It was the one place I could make things as messy as I wanted to. My parents and relatives knew and accepted that boundary, so they did not stop me or ask me any questions (unless they perceived danger—but I got pretty good at hiding the dangerous stuff). We didn’t do any lab work at the K-12 schools I attended in Niger and everything at school was theoretical. I would only read of experiments described in words in expensive textbooks that I would copy from the Franco-Nigerien national library. I think that’s one advantage that kids growing up in the 1st world do have: the opportunity to be exposed to experiments and lab work early, sometimes even before high-school. When I got to the US and I was shown a “real” research laboratory in the Physics department at my alma matter, I was hooked! Again, in retrospect, it was a liberal arts college with not quite as much funding and research resources as it should. But there was a laboratory and I was encouraged to continue nurturing my curiosity, figure out how things work, and do “real” scientific research already as an undergraduate.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
I have had many failures, almost at every step. But I also learned not to dwell on them, as most times I actually learned something new and as a result, I could do things even better than before. I welcome challenges and I have convinced myself of one thing: where I start from is never going to be a limiting factor in getting to where I want to be, so long as I am willing to put in the hard work necessary for me to get there.

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
If you want it, do it!  If you happen to feel isolated and alone, it helps to speak with others who might have gone through it before you. Perhaps most importantly, it helps to find a network of colleagues who are doing it at the same time as you. For example, many scientific societies, including ASBMB, make it part of their mission to help students and young scholars connect with opportunities that will help them make the most of their training and research careers. So find out about resources that could be available to you and take advantage!

What are your hobbies?
When I have time (sadly, very rarely now), I enjoy dancing, mostly afro/cuban (salsa, bachata, merengue…).  I also enjoy running, and swimming.

What was the last book you read?
“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.  A friend recommended it earlier this summer and I finally got to read it.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
I have too many to cite. What these people have in common is that they have talked about an experience in their life that shattered a stereotype or preconceived idea I had about their lives and, in some cases, about their professional achievements. I like it when people, especially scientists, are frank about how they got to where they are.  There is value in demystifying our work and allowing a broader range of young talents to feel that they can do it too - and do it better!

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
I get to figure out how nature works! And I’m doing this while interacting with colleagues that happen to be some of the smartest and most interesting people one can meet. What’s more exciting than that!?

To read Ibrahim Cisse's recent research published in Science, go to:

To learn more about Ibrahim Cisse, go to: